The Gluten Wars

The new food villain.


Thou shall not murder.

Thou shall not commit adultery.

Thou shall not steal.

Thou shall not devastate thy body with wheat-based ingredients.

Honor thy rice flour and thy corn chips, that thy days may be long upon the land which thy organic farmer is giving thee.

I’m really susceptible to food-based guilt. I think maybe it comes from growing up not skinny in late 20th-century America. Lately, it’s the gluten that’s getting me down, partly because I just don’t know what to believe.

On one hand, I’m experiencing a whole new realm of food-based guilt stemming from the bringing of home-cooked food containing gluten to gatherings which include Gluten-Free (GF) People. I feel like I’m bringing KFC extra-crispy to obese heart patients.

Every other package at the grocery store now says “Gluten Free!” Whole freezer cases are now devoted to wheat-free waffles and six-dollar loaves of brown rice bread the size of my digital camera. My husband listens to a lot of alternative health podcasts and I’ve heard the burgeoning anti-gluten movement for myself.

It used to be that Celiac disease was a little-known disorder involving the breakdown of the digestive tract due to a severe allergy to an elastic protein in wheat and similar grains known as gluten.  It was so rare that an early episode of House, MD – king of bizarre, utterly far-fetched diseases you would never ever guess – featured a woman suffering from Celiac disease. Nowadays, given symptoms from nausea to headaches and sore joints to rashes, any American five-year-old could diagnose gluten intolerance.

On the podcasts, I learned that the traditional understanding of gluten allergies is dead wrong. Gluten’s insidious effect is not limited to the digestive tracts of an unlucky few. Apparently gluten is rotting everyone’s bodies from the inside out, accountable for everything from diarrhea to dementia. In fact, the decline of human health as a whole began thousands of years ago, when we stopped gnawing hunted bones and foraged berries for sustenance, and began planting fields of wheat.  One harrowing internet narrative involved a GF nun who continued to have devastating symptoms, until a wise and committed alternative practitioner discovered that she was still taking the Holy Eucharist- Jesus may be your BF, but he’s not GF. Wheat destroys your gut, clouds your mind and rapidly makes you obese, and our whole modern society is going to hell in a bread-basket until we lay off the spaghetti.

On the other hand, I’m confused, because the grocery-store packaging that is not Gluten Free proclaims that it’s Whole Wheat and therefore excellent for my health. Several years ago, I patted myself on the back for switching from white bread to whole wheat or whole grain bread, thinking that it made me a healthier individual. Almost every health manual – particularly those espousing vegetarian or vegan diets – hinges on whole grains. The specialty market sells seitan, a wheat-based meat substitute that is essentially gluten, as a wonderfully healthy option. What is the truth?

The whole thing gives me even more trouble, because I have, in fact, heard at least one alternative health practitioner pronounce online that Interstitial Cystitis (IC), a little-known bladder disease, is none other than a gluten allergy, and that IC patients will cure themselves the moment they lay off the bread.

Being an IC sufferer myself, I asked my urology specialist this week if she knew of any studies that linked gluten intolerance to IC. To her extensive knowledge, no studies of this type have ever been done, let alone proved that IC is a wheat allergy. She says that some of her other patients have gone GF with mixed results. One improved a lot. Others reported fewer headaches but the same pelvic pain. Others saw no difference. But when you have an incurable medical condition that produces epic pain on a daily basis, you tend to grasp at straws. It makes me wonder if quitting the gluten is what I should do.

And this brings me to a difficulty which is infinitely more gluttonous but just as potent. The idea of going GF strikes terror into my heart. No more bread and butter, no more pasta? No more cookies, no more quiche, no more soup with a smidgeon of flour? Maybe for your average consumer this isn’t too intimidating. But I already spend roughly a third of my waking hours scouring ingredient labels for substances I’m allergic to (like the flavoring monosodium glutamate, in approximately 99.6% of the food on the market today) or absolutely cannot abide, like peppers, wasabi, cilantro, caraway or aspartame. This also includes avoiding almost all fruit in any form, tomato and tomato sauces, citric acid, all juices, all tea, all coffee, all soda and all alcohol, because of the IC. Upon scanning any restaurant menu, I usually find that about 80% of the dishes are off-limits.

The point is that I feel as if I can’t face any more dietary elimination. Yes, I know there are GF imitations for everything from muffins to crackers, but GF People bring them to the party and I’ve tasted them. Plus they seem to cost at least twice as much as regular items. My grocery budget couldn’t take it.

Then there’s the issue of the constantly evolving roster of food police no-no’s. Part of me fears that gluten is simply the food scare of the year, which will be proven baseless in time for some new culinary specter. How many times has the government “Food Pyramid” changed in the last decade? Can anyone make sense of its last two or three incarnations? A decade or two ago, fat was the ultimate enemy, and dieters gorged on pasta and bread. Even today, some of the most prominent “health food” options are non-fat yogurts and the like bursting with sugar.

Doctors used to warn against red meat, dairy and eggs. Now, we’re learning that these iron and vitamin-rich foods are nutritious in moderation: a healthy body needs protein and fat, and carbohydrates and sugar are the real enemies. In the last year, I’ve read some articles touting the health benefits of brightly colored vegetables and at least one advocating the consumption of pale ones.  I’ve heard that peanuts are a great diet aid, and also that they’re terribly toxic. Coffee, chocolate, and red wine, once guilty indulgences, now have positive impacts on longevity and heart health. In relation to my IC, one author urged me to cut out all red meat in favor of a grain-based diet, while another, as you saw, warned against grains.

Jumping on the anti-gluten bandwagon would be a big commitment. I fear that the GF craze will be disproven and die down, like so many other dietary doctrines over the years. In the meantime, I’m getting a little sick of the GF doctrine – especially from those who claim they can cure my disease without any studies to back them up – even as I fear, deep down, that I have brought my health woes upon myself one bagel at a time.

I remember the first time I ever felt guilty about eating – I decided I was too fat when I was about seven years old, and have never looked back.  Now, a new layer of guilt is developing every time I have a piece of whole wheat toast with my breakfast eggs. It’s already hard enough to stop myself from reaching for some orange juice, berries or tea in the morning – should I partake in the gluten-based shame as well?

I can’t face the latest grocery store gospel alone anymore. Will you please weigh in with your own (fact-based) opinion or experience?




Add yours →

  1. A friend of mine has celiac disease. Which really sucks for her, since gluten is contained not only in wheat but also in some other plants.

    And I’ve been encountering an increasing amount of articles about gluten-free diet and autism. Mostly showing that there is no link between the two. So this is where they all come from!

    • Yes, I always felt very sorry for people with Celiac – it must be an incredibly hard thing to live with. Not only is gluten contained in grains other than wheat, but gluten and wheat products are hiding in so many products where you would not otherwise expect them. Thanks for reading.

  2. I am constantly amazed at the powerful role food plays in my emotional existence, my view of self, my expression of love for those around me, guilt, sin, etc. etc. I have been on what feels like an epic journey toward feeling good about myself – both body image and general feeling of vitality – and my choices.

    Two of my siblings are gluten free. I am very familiar with preparing alternatives, and yes they are expensive and often disappointing (not always though). From my years of reading, researching, and eating – this is what I have come to for myself: Any food item that is the result of intensive, repeated, crowded production and/or hype, and can find its way into just about any package on the super market shelf – is one that I need to monitor in my daily intake. This goes for wheat, corn, soy etc. What it boils down to for me personally, is that I have no self control in the presence of baked goods unless it is sprouted bread. If I need to stay away from cookies in order to continue losing weight – I am not going to blame this on wheat and go make myself some GF cookies. If I am not going to be satisfied with anything less than a full cup serving of pasta for my meal – then I am going to avoid pasta – wheat and rice because I know that my body will not continue to lose weight on full cup servings of pasta.

    So basically, I believe that very few people are actually Celiac (allergic to wheat gluten), I suspect GMOs have something to do with the increase in intolerances, very few people know how to prepare grains in a way to make them easier to digest, and “Gluten Free” has been embraced by media hype and many people are profiting from it while substituting all sorts of stabilizers and fillers in the products. I personally limit my intake because I stay on track with my overall eating and weight loss better when I do.

    In the end, I don’t think it matters if gluten is “good” or “bad” except how it affects YOU.

    • Thanks for this excellent bouquet of food-related thought. I really like your point about being wary of any food that is so mass-produced and marketed that it is in EVERYTHING. I hear your baked-good woes – when I walk past a bakery, it feels like nirvana just to smell it – I know I can’t go in. The rise of GMOs is also a valid point that I didn’t think about when writing this post. I also think it’s very true that “Gluten Free” has become a marketing cash-cow for food companies, but how much do we really know about the nutritional quality of that stuff?

      I suppose, in your book, my own gluten answer will not come from research, but from trying out the GF life for myself and seeing how it feels to me.

      • Imagine how freeing it could be to give GF a solid, controlled try and find when you go back to gluten that you can handle it quite well! Honestly I would be surprised if this was your experience (sorry) but my point is that right now you are fearing a potentiality not a reality and my experience so far is that potentialities are all-consuming and realities shrink down to mere annoyances (on the daily level.) All of the guilt and grieving you are doing right now as you continue to ingest your bagels and whatnots is really just a waste of time, energy, and emotion. (I’m kinda talking to myself here…)

        Baking is magical, mysterious, and oh so often described as heavenly. Yet the effect on my body (beyond my taste buds) is merely an expansion of this earthly, fleshly, lump. I am uneasy with the potential correspondences here (heat and love vs. the sensual)…. I have yet to reconcile this emotionally, and I am baffled by how emotional it really is.

        I don’t believe GF to be the panacea that it is touted to be, however I suspect that you know you “should” give it a try and this blog post is just part of your death throes as you surrender to that knowledge. :^)

        Good luck!

      • Freeing? yes, if it worked out that gluten isn’t my culprit. But if I see the adoption of GF eating as “death throes” I really will never do it.. Right now I am working on an article about a pasta chef who had a lot of interesting things to say about the quality of typical industrial wheat products and local, sustainable, organic, non-GMO grain sources, and the difference this makes to our bodies.

        Perhaps, as you say, going GF would not be as bad as the DREAD of going GF, once it comes down to concrete daily choices instead of nebulous anxiety. But I can’t tell you how much it depresses me, from time to time, to watch all the other party-goers enjoying pineapple, bruschetta or beer while I stick with crackers, cheese and water, and I can’t imagine that taking away the crackers too would make me feel better. I guess a life of beer and fruit-less parties is far from the worst thing in the world, but it’s still tough to think about your whole life hemmed in by foods you can’t eat – as you say, food has a bizarrely powerful emotional grasp on us. Going GF might bring peace of mind on some level, but wouldn’t that peace be drummed out by the rising tide of bitterness at an endless new world of food stricken off my already measly menu? Perhaps going GF would make me feel so much better I wouldn’t mind. I’ll give it a try (after Christmas…)

        And I think it’s really not that surprising that food has such an emotional hold on us. After all, if we don’t eat, we die – the stakes are pretty high. I also think that we wouldn’t be human without our emotions. So with food sustaining our bodies and emotions sustaining the humanity of our minds, why shouldn’t the two be powerfully linked? Thanks again for your responses.

      • I meant death throes being the process of surrender to knowledge that disrupts comfort, not the choosing of a conscious lifestyle.

        It makes a lot of sense to me that food and emotion go hand in hand. What irks me is the delicate balance/battle between sensory pleasure and health.

      • Yes, giving up our comforts can feel like the death throes of contentment.

        You should consider subscribing, if you haven’t already, even if only because I enjoy your comments.

  3. I’ve been gluten-free for almost two years now. We’re coming on my 2nd GF Thanksgiving, which is a challenge but do-able. I think you covered the topic pretty well but I just want address one thing. The cost.

    If you buy pre-made GF items, you’re absolutely right, it’s ridiculously costly. If you don’t by those things the cost of being GF isn’t that bad. If you’re already avoiding MSG (which I do too because it has gluten) you’re not buying the cheapest food anyway. I just keep rice flour on hand for soups and gravy. One of the cheapest gluten free bread is also one of the best (Udi’s!) at $4ish a loaf. The rice pasta, Tinkyada, tastes just like wheat and is 3.79 for 16 oz of pasta. Those are pretty much to only pre-made GF foods I buy.

    I would recommend you give it a try for just one week. I felt a difference in a day and my energy level was improved by day 4. I’ll be interested to hear what you decide. I hope you’re doing well Alaina 🙂

    • Thanks for these tips. It’s nice to hear that it’s possible to feel a benefit in a short amount of time. And I must say, I do LOVE rice noodles, way more than wheat noodles. Sometimes I make my own Pad Thai (minus chilies and cilantro, of course!). I’ve made several new food commitments over the last few years, including the MSG (amazing how few headaches I get now, compared to before I knew about that particular sensitivity) and buying pastured meat and dairy products and free-range eggs, and cutting out pre-packaged foods in favor of fresh cooking. It’s true that cutting out MSG does mean the cheapest food is off-limits. I used to use flour in soup, but now I puree rice cooked w/ broth for really nice flavor and texture. But God I love bread.

      Thanks for reading and commenting – always good to hear from you. If I decide to do a gluten-free experiment, maybe I’ll blog about that.

  4. Well written blog. I’ve been GF for 2 1/2 years. I initially went GF as a last ditch effort to eliminate the burning between my belly button and pubic bone and the fact that I’d lost over 80 pounds in a year without trying. I also had dark circles under my eyes, I was loosing my hair, and my nails were thin and marked. I was also trying to manage IBS and migraines.I noticed a difference in the first week or so. I continued to feel good for 14 months. Then the pain returned. Looking back, the pain coincided with becoming intimate again-Spasms, pain afterwards, etc. It wasn’t until this past summer that I was diagnosed with IC. Like you are fearful of doing, I now have to read food labels even more closely and it does get frustrating. Valerie’s comment is so true- it’s not that much more expensive if you don’t buy pre-made food. Also, once you are GF for a month or so, the food begins to taste just fine and you don’t notice any difference.
    I find it difficult to believe that so many people are GF who don’t have to be. If your pain is manageable now, I wouldn’t try it. The IC diet is complicated enough without being on the hunt for gluten.

    • So sorry to hear about your IC diagnosis – I know how tough it can be. Thanks for the personal perspective on IC and gluten. It’s true the IC diet is already bad enough, but I know for sure that sticking to it significantly reduces the average day’s pain. It’s a bit scary for me to write about the IC publicly, since it’s hard for healthy folks to understand and few people know anything about it, so thanks especially for reading and responding with your own experience.

  5. I loved reading this! It’s a bummer when cultural fads take over the food industry and overshadow important health issues to the point where everyone is sick and tired of hearing about it. I live in L.A. (land of food fads–anything that will get you to lose 15 lbs in 3 days) and I must say that going GF is definitely the “hip” thing here. This baffles me. It’s like the fashion trend of wearing glasses with plastic lenses. Glasses-wearers are dumbfounded by the thought of a perfectly seeing person would *choose* to wear glasses even when they don’t need to. Coming from someone who is intolerant to gluten, I am shocked to hear that someone willing chooses to go GF because it’s trendy. If I could, I would eat it absolutely!

    You are right though. It is hard work deciphering what gluten is in, especially when you already have a list of ingredients you have to avoid. I can totally understand your comprehension. I still really miss beer (though I just found a really decent one this week that I can drink…which makes me happy!)

    If you lived next door, I would feed you all my gluten free goodies (and I promise you, they taste nothing like the stuff you taste-tested at those parties) 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by, Cara. As a glasses-wearer myself from an early age, I can relate to the head-scratching over the wearing of glasses as a mere fashion accessory. If we lived on the same coast, we could go out together and both drink no beer for different reasons.

  6. Hey, just read your post. I recently found out I had Celiac disease a little over a year ago…after a couple of years of weird health problems that i had seen doctors for but no one ever diagnosed. One Dr. even told me “i don’t see anything standing out on your blood work except for an iron deficiency, but i really think there is something wrong with you and you should seriously go talk to your doctor when you move back home, i really think there is something else not good going on’…..which made me feel wonderful!!!! I was suggested to try a gluten free diet by a more ‘holistic medicine’ type doctor (who was a chiropractor i went to for chronic back pain) and after attempting a gluten free diet and starting to feel better went to a MD Celiac Specialist who confirmed the diagnosis. Its been a tough transition. I had noticed someone had posted they felt better in a couple days, i just wanted to let you know that for me it took about 3-4 months before i really started feeling better because i went pretty significantly malabsorptive because of the intestinal damage and was loosing weight and loosing muscle. Now after a year or so in, i feel a lot better!
    Since Celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivities are just starting to become more understood, and better screening tools are being developed, more people are being diagnosed. the increased media attention and trendiness of it may actually be helping the funding for medical research……
    I am someone who would recommend trying a gluten free diet to someone who has chronic or autoimmune type issues, with a “why not try and if it doesn’t help then stop” sort of mind frame. especially since more and more medical studies are showing that many autoimmune disease predispositions are on the same allele. For example I recently wrote a research paper on the high incidence of having both Celiac Disease and Diabetes.
    That is the one thing about the “trendy” part of gluten free that bothers me. Sure some people choose to do the gluten free diet cuz they think it is “health” or Trendy or Cool” which i don’t understand because it is so challenging, but to each their own. This bothers me because for many people going gluten free isn’t just all ‘Sunshine and Gluten Free Cupcakes.’ ….Celiac disease can have a lot of other associated issues and health concerns, especially with late diagnosis (especially in children with no diagnosis) these things can range from poor growth to cancer. I’m in my mid 20s and i already have osteopenia. I feel like sometimes, since it is becoming so trendy and hip, that if I am eating out or with a large group and I attempt to order Gluten Free, sometimes I am not taken seriously because they think you are some sort of hipster trendy health nut.

    Sorry for the rant, i don’t usually do this message board commenting thing

    • First, really sorry to hear about the diagnosis. It must be tough, so good luck managing this. I really like what you say about the difference between “trendy and hip” gluten-free people, and people who have Celiac disease or a severe intolerance. I think other commenters have hinted at it too. I know it’s totally dangerous ever to assume that you can understand what’s going on inside another person, but it does seem like not everyone who’s GF is doing it b/c of a real health problem, and I never considered what the society-wide impact of that might be on people for whom gluten is really dangerous. Of course, people should be free to make their own food choices, within reason, but it troubles me to hear about your problem of not being taken seriously at restaurants – I know how hard it can be to get waitstaff to pay attention when you ask that a certain food be left out of your dish. Your comment doesn’t qualify as a rant, because everything you say is quite cogent, and adds nicely to the discussion.

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